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Last Call at Moe's

tv
Ben Fishman

TV Party Tonight: In the right location and with enough beer, even television watching can become a social activity.

Enjoying The Simpsons at the neighborhood bar

By Richard von Busack

I got the taste for watching bar TV in the city where I used to live. A nightclub located there broadcast the closing episode of Twin Peaks. There were no fires or murders that night, so cameramen from the local station came to cover the farewell parties for the show. Later that night, I saw myself on TV pale with shock at the messy suicide of Leland Palmer. I loved the Mobius-strip quality of being on television just for watching television.

Sunday night, as Janis Joplin once said, is the night of the week when you want a drink most of all. The fact that Sunday night also is when the best show on TV airs makes it natural to get both solaces at once. Watching TV in a bar helps sharpen television's effect as a creator of an artificial community. On the surface, The Simpsons is a parody of sitcoms, complete with the usual lineup: gelded dad, all-knowing mom, demon child. But the imaginary real town of Springfield is the real star, a meta-town in the tradition of Our Town or Winesburg, Ohio. When has a TV show had as many supporting characters?

Obviously of too high quality to survive in the workday of television, The Simpsons has lasted--and contiues to last--eight seasons to date. It has broad appeal without doing all of the niggling little things you have to do to gain broad appeal. The fork-headed child Bart has been bootlegged and merchandised on tourist shirts and adapted in black, Latino, and British versions. But it's not just a people's show; when James Fallows, editor of U.S. News & World Report, was interviewed by The New Yorker, he called The Simpsons "the greatest creative achievement of our time."

There are almost as many venues for public viewing of The Simpsons in San Francisco as there are sports bars: These include the Elbo Room at 647 Valencia between 16th and 17th streets (415/552-7788) and the long-running Simpsons night at the Chameleon at 853 Valencia. Some Place Else at 1795 Geary (415/440-2180) promotes itself as a place to watch The X-Files, but they warm up the screen earlier: "We usually have The Simpsons on, and it's King of the Hill afterward." The highly soulful Edinburgh Castle on Geary broadcasts the show, the Scots-accented source (perhaps a fan of groundskeeper Willie?) says, "if people ask for it."

Unless a bar is too hip to have a television, it won't consider The Simpsons as being unhip. Most bartenders, being wits, will switch on the show if it doesn't compete with playoff season.

The Blue Danube at 306 Clement is the last European-style café on Clement Street, where the businesses are now mostly Asian-oriented: florists with sprays of orchids in the windows and shops buzzing with small electronic toys and gadgets.

The Blue Danube looks backward to 1950s beatnik motifs: some post­art brut paintings (a Marge-yellow baby bottle labeled "Formula"), a splendid and huge Viennese-style café mirror as big as a wall, and some sort of haute-jazz tenor sax burbling away on the stereo. Posted outside the cafe is a sign reading "Sunday Night is Simpsons Night 7­9pm, happy hour, $2.50 pints and a promise of a free drink if you can prove your name is Homer, Bart, Marge, Barney, Moe, Mr. Burns, Millhouse, Mr. Smithers, Troy McClure, Kent Brockman, McBain or Apu."

Counterman Rick Hohl, a young man in a Tucson Habitat for Humanity T-shirt, says: "It's been three months since we started playing The Simpsons. Now that there's daylight savings time we have less people, because they'd rather be outside. There's generally a good crowd, though. It's funny--at 8:30, when that other one that comes on, what's it called? King of the Hill? That's when they all clear out."

It was a fine evening outside, the howling sunset winds off the ocean having played out for a moment. There were half a dozen idlers inside. A few leaned forward protectively over their notebooks in that "eating Jell-O at San Quentin" pose that prevents anyone from stealing a look at the book. Across the room, a noisy quartet of USF law students, as alike as new boots at a boot camp, were all griping about Alan Dershowitz. "Testosterone City," groaned my wife, but The Simpsons kicked the young sharks out. The Blue Danube Café has a fine sound system, and if you weren't watching, you had to raise your voice to talk over it.

The episode itself was about a subject that really drives me nuts: the cooking up of demographic cartoon characters meant to grab the youth market. Faced with declining ratings, the producers of "Itchy and Scratchy," the ultraviolent cartoon within a cartoon, decided that they needed to introduce a "youth" character, a dog named Poochy. The dog, who sported baggy shorts, a backward baseball hat and sunglasses, was a tangle of motifs; he had a skateboard and an electric guitar and a basketball and a mountain bike, all of which he played with or rode at once. The mutt was accurately called out by Lisa, the Noam Chomsky of Springfield, as "a soulless product of committee thinking."

As rich as Poochy was, the completely on-the-level commercial that followed was even better. A crowd of auto workers leave their beds at 5am to gather, as if called by a force greater than themselves. They stand together, their faces turned up in awe toward The Light, which in this case was a ship filled with the first trade-agreement-mandated boatload of Saturns being sent to Japan. Over the "Morning in America--The Special Edition" music, the announcer tells us that in the 10 years since the Saturnians arrived, these workers have found hope, a reason to live and so forth. They let it slip--you had to be alert--that the town where the Saturn plant was located was Springfield.

Across town at the Chameleon, on the arty part of Valencia, I went to find out what happens to your favorite bar when you quit drinking and don't come back for 10 years. What happens is that, sometimes, it stays the same, bars being outside the limits of time and space as we know them. (Two hours can pass like 10 minutes, or four hours like a week's vacation.) The Chameleon Club used to be The Chatterbox, but the floor where I used to stand every third Saturday for two years was just as battered. There I watched my version of The Light, my favorite band in the whole wide world, Spot 1019. Yet another of those bands who had the tragedy of getting this close (hold two fingers together): three records, an economy-class nationwide tour, but no MTV and no noncollege radio, and that was that.

The Chameleon's management got rid of the Fiberglas statue of the '50s rocker in Levi's, black leather jacket and white T-shirt. Really drunk people used to have conversations with it. The Marc Bolan poster must have disintegrated, but to my indescribable nostalgia, "Metal Guru" was playing, on a record player, yet; then (1987) as now, T Rex's Greatest Hits was apparently one of the only records the bar had. The beer choice is better now; they have at least six microbrews when they only used to serve Millers and Becks. After the show, Dave the bartender tells me that the Chameleon has been having Simpsons nights for two years, that he's been there for six months, and that only recently did he start giving away prizes for "Name That Tune."

I entered just as The World's Most Incredible Animal Rescues was coming to its dramatic conclusion on the tube, five feet above the bar. Only six people were sitting side by side at the bar, and I was thinking "dead end." At 7:55 patrons started to file in until there were two dozen fans milling around.

David the bartender shushed everyone to stroke the day's prizes: a "Save the Gerbils" T-shirt (plenty of chortling over the urban-legendary rodent known as "Gere-bulls"), a novelty-shop wind-up of hopping plastic breasts with feet, and a couple of free beers.

This week: Miserly Montgomery Burns, pauperized by the 1929 stock-market crash and just getting the bad news, is helped by the liberal do-gooder Lisa. In defiance of decades of show business, the old bastard gets meaner. During the break, David starts a round of Name That Tune. I misidentified, over the course of four program breaks, "Use Me" by Grace Jones, the Moody Blues, Sparks and Donny Osmond. A gent of about my age recognizes Sparks but doesn't speak up to win the T-shirt: "They'd fire me if I wore that T-shirt to work."

The show ends and the mood breaks; we shatter down into our categories, all part of that Balkan style that comes from a city with so many hills and so many valleys, so many financial highs and lows. Filing out, some are Smitherses, some Burnses, a few from that age group that the Powers That Be are trying to shape into the mold of Poochy. Some--well, me anyway--carry the bulk, the weight of age, the yearning for donuts and the same name (Grandma was a Simpson before she was married) as Homer J. himself.

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From the June 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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